It’s Potlatch Season—The Celebration Of All Things Material

Econophile's picture

Is gift giving during Christmas and Hanukkah a wasteful practice by which we just crave status from friends and family? Is it a harmless, even joyful, practice to bestow goodwill and joy on the ones we love? Is it a giant commercial venture by which retailers encourage us to part with dollars in an orgy of gift giving by folks who ought to be guarding their earnings rather than spending? Is it a necessary part of our economy that drives production and wealth? Is it a religious act? Or is it a joyous celebration of the material, which, when you think about it, is a celebration of life.

In my house Christmas is a much looked forward to event where we decorate our home and tree, enjoy the company of our friends and family, (hopefully) experience a change of season with crisp weather here in sunny Santa Barbara, buy gifts, and do quite a bit of eating, drinking, and merrymaking.

There ought to be a special time of the year when we can celebrate. Not being religious, I can celebrate many things: my family, my health, my friends, the changing weather, the parties, and giving things as well. It’s fun. Christmas is one of our most important seasons since it really lasts for a month as we roll into New Year.

I always found the idea of giving gifts to family, friends, and even strangers an odd thing. Why do we do it? I love gift-giving, don’t get me wrong. I think it comes down to celebration. It makes us feel good to make others feel good. It is part of the joy of life which is why we celebrate. It is also a celebration of our material well being.

Almost all societies throughout time have celebrations that involve gift-giving. The native peoples of the Northwest had potlatch which was an elaborate celebration where one clan would prepare gifts, sometimes it took years to put it together, and hold a big party for another clan and bestow them with the entire output. Their point was to gain status and was seen as a religious observance. There was no quid pro quo, but it put the giftees in the position of having to reciprocate or lose status. It would sometimes impoverish the donor clan, but status was more important.

Almost all of these holidays and celebrations take place in the winter. The Romans called it Saturnalia. They too gave gifts (on December 23). The reasons are ancient and coincide with the winter solstice, that time when days become longer and there is the promise of new growth and rebirth. Clever folks our ancestors. It was a good thing to celebrate once they figured out seasonality because it made their lives predictable and they could make longer term plans for hunting and farming. This planning enabled them to create greater material wealth for themselves, which enabled and ennobled their lives.

I am not sure our ancestors would recognize our gift-giving potlatch season. People go nuts. As far as I can tell, it has little to do with religion anymore as people are more concerned with shopping, wrapping, credit card bills, and partying. Most folks, I read, spend the rest of the year paying off their credit card bills.

America is the worst, or best, depending how you look at it. Christmas and Hanukkah celebrations represent more than one-third of annual sales for retailers. We are bombarded with advertisements for all that glitters. New TVs sail out the doors. Perfumers and jewelers have the greatest sales of the year. Trust me there is no religious quality to shopping. Much less the TV ads. How about the perfume ad for Dolce + Gabbana where the young stud in a white Speedo hops out of the water followed by a beautiful woman, and, as they embrace, the guys is untying her top. "Cut." Hmmm. Crass indeed.

Critics of this behavior decry it as gross materialism. We miss, they say, the significance of whatever religious observance they think is more important. Furthermore, it’s just wasteful.

I disagree.

It is fundamental to our human, social nature to celebrate. The critics are correct that it is materialistic, but there is nothing crass about materialism. The real reason to celebrate is because we see a future of possibilities that will bring us more material goods. Solstice is the origin, but for us here in America, seasons don’t have much to do with anything anymore unless you are a farmer. We celebrate because we have material things that make our lives better. We have food in abundance, clothing of infinite varieties, machines that do our work for us, homes with furnishing to keep us warm, gadgets and electronics that make our lives easier and more fun, beautiful automobiles and other means to get us anywhere we wish to go, tools of learning for any subject, unlimited entertainment, a medical system that keeps us well. This is the material world and it is good. We ought to take time out to celebrate mankind’s progress and our well being.

I know what you cynics out there will say. Yeah, fine for you, but people go hungry and are homeless, folks can’t afford medical care, people are trapped in poverty, the elderly suffer, education is expensive, the cost of living too high … To quote the great Seinfeld, yada, yada, yada. Get a life if you don’t have one and celebrate what we have, not what we don’t have.

There is one thing I have learned that has given me some degree of success and that is you have to get out of bed every morning and think and do something positive. If you look at the world in a negative way, you won’t get out of that bed figuratively (maybe literally too). You have to be optimistic about the future and your life and think of the possibilities you can achieve. If you think a material life isn’t a reason to celebrate, think about why you are alive and the material things that got you here.

If you criticize our annual celebration of the material, then you are denying your own human nature and its capacity for success and joy. Just look around you and celebrate.


P.S. Merry Christmas.

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cramers_tears's picture

We celebrate because we have material things that make our lives better. We have food in abundance, clothing of infinite varieties, machines that do our work for us, homes with furnishing to keep us warm, gadgets and electronics that make our lives easier and more fun, beautiful automobiles and other means to get us anywhere we wish to go, tools of learning for any subject, unlimited entertainment, a medical system that keeps us well. This is the material world and it is good. We ought to take time out to celebrate mankind’s progress and our well being.

Thats Thanksgiving Babe...

GMadScientist's picture

I do find it odd that an atheist like myself has an easier time remembering the prince of peace than many of my so-called Christian friends decked out in red/green outfits, downing spiked'n'spiced toddies, and giving each other edible lingerie with jokes about "naughty but nice" presents.

I see it as a time of renewal, to make peace, to appreciate time off from labors and enjoy the company of loved ones, not the jingle-laden, black-friday, mall-parking, online-shop-a-thon of unthoughtful gift cards (here, take this token of my debt for all the significance it has) and "must have" toys (as if children need be initiated in the practice of status symbolism for fear it fade away).

This Christmas with a three year old was a long exercise in patience and self-discipline in the name of future rewards, most of which are set up to involve myself and my wife in his continuing education; he can read pretty well, sounding out words he doesn't know yet, though his vocabulary grows by leaps every day (otoscope? incandescent?!) and the subterfuge of spelling out things we'd rather not say doesn't look like it will hold out much longer.

At various times during the day he was an astronaut, doctor, and computer programmer; we'll see which one is really his passion in due time.

CheapBastard's picture

Borrow....borrow ...and borrow some more.

Spend...spend...and spend some more.

Keep the ball rolling. Make Bernanke proud of you!

shovelhead's picture

Not sure what other tribes do but in our cave, we give gifts because it is fun and we enjoy seeing the delight little treasures bring to both young and old and celebrate just being a family.

We don't spend a lot but we have fun. Winter can be dreary so we start it off with a booster shot.

We don't pay much attention to what clever folks tell us what we are doing or why we're doing it.

We do it because we LIKE doing it.

If you don't enjoy it, you're doing it wrong. Don't do it.

Not really a whole lot of moving parts to analyze how it works...

But it does.

Half Norman Rockwell, half Grateful Dead show Christmas.

Awesome new blender to replace the real old one that smokes and ran at half speed.

Have another Margarita?

Mad Mohel's picture

It's Jesus's birthday, now gimmie my shit!

northerngirl's picture

If you are not celebrating the, "Birth of Christ", then why participate in the Christmas Season?  Putting the season into the correct context may help some realize that there is a reason for the season, and it is not about going into debt to keep up with the Jone's.  

CH1's picture

If you are not celebrating the, "Birth of Christ", then why participate in the Christmas Season?

Nothing against Jesus, but people getting together and spending a few brain cycles on thoughts of kindness and warmth are good things. We should welcome them, not nitpick.

Note that I have not mentioned gifts.

WT Sherman's picture

I'm very thankful I don't live in a world where chamber pots are emptied into the streets below...e.g. Victorian England.

I'm also thankful that I don't live in a town where the primary mode of transport, a horse, crap in muddy streets.  So obviously I'm thankful the internal combustion engine.

Beyond that every technological wonder made invented or improved in the last 50 years has only served to disconnect people from each other and their families. 

I guess I'd think higher of all this 'time saving' technology if more of it was still made in the U.S.A. and less in Communist China.

If I can do anything for my kids well-being it will be to teach them and enable them to never, ever go into debt for anything.

Merry Christmas...belated.


blindman's picture

(1) The disciples said to Jesus: "Tell us how our end will be."
(2) Jesus said: "Have you already discovered the beginning that you are now asking about the end?
For where the beginning is, there the end will be too.
(3) Blessed is he who will stand at the beginning.
And he will know the end, and he will not taste death."
25 December 2012
It's A Wonderful Life: Bedford Falls or Pottersville?

"These men are springs without water and mists driven by a storm. Blackest darkness is reserved for them. For they mouth empty, boastful words and, by appealing to the desires of sinful nature, they entice people who think they avoid error.

They promise them freedom, while they themselves are slaves, for a man is a slave to whatever has mastered him." jca

CH1's picture

You understand, I hope, that very few people consider those to be the authentic words of Jesus?

Gnosticism is a long way from what most people accept as Christianity.

blindman's picture

i know, most people disregard just how
roman their christianity is.

CH1's picture

More particularly: Fuck obligation and inertia and status and advertising and consumerism... and brain-deadness in general.

PUD's picture

"celebrate what we have"...don't you mean what "you" have? If "you" had tons of material possessions and your son had none would you celebrate? What if your cousin didn't? Or your neighbor? Or someone on the other side of town? Or across the sea?

It's all where you draw your line isn't it?

What if all those material things you're celebrating came from some Asian sweat shop? Or from some endangered species? Or at great cost to some natural resource? Or at a cost to any living thing for that matter?

I'm pessimistic but I still get out of bed. Being pessimistic for me is a state of mind not a mindset. Optimists are just as bad as pessimists as they see things through colored glasses not as they truly are. I'm pessimistic because there are too many people like you who glorify materialism without an understanding of the consequences. Yes, material things have made life easier and better in many regards but unrestrained materialism has also brought climate change, huge class divisions, pollution on grand scales, destruction of entire bio systems and the capitalistic predatory financial system we have now  etc

Giving thanks for what one has is fine if it isn't about the material things and keeps in mind the full story behind the manufacture, transportation and disposition of those things and all who touch and are touched by them.

piceridu's picture

Christmas is an invention  and Mr. Econophile, you just might be conditioned. I suggest you read: The Battle For Christmas by Stephen Nissenbaum...  Christmas's drunken festival was transformed, during the nineteenth century, into a festival of domesticity and consumerism.

“The history of Christmas is also a history of religious and class conflict. Powerful interests have always tried to co-opt real human needs, and the battle to control this festival is an example of that. The Church tried to christianise it, the Victorians wanted to make it respectable, and then a group of New Yorkers invented the domestic idyll and Santa Claus. And from the latter grew modern consumer society”.

minosgal's picture

'The real reason to celebrate is because we see a future of possibilities that will bring us more material goods.'


It's an old Cuban custom to take a handful of change and throw it into the air (or into water) around New Year -- let the coins fall where they may. Doing so divests you of any bad luck clinging to you from the preceeding year and expresses a belief that in non-attachment, you will acquire even more coin in the coming year.

Tommy Gunner's picture

I call this BULLSHIT. 

Christmas has become and orgy of piggish spending by piggish people who value themselves and their lives by how much shit they have.  

George Carlin had it right:

I give only books for Christmas these days - what's the point of buying anything else when most people have Christmas year round pretty much buying whatever they want (on credit) so it's a bit difficult to find anything they might consider special.

blindman's picture

but the material in gifting represents the
immaterial past and the vibration of sound
as it elucidated the essential at a stage
of development toward coherency, as in the idol
or fetish; a step in the creation of the
concept of self and god. symbol, the material
serves as symbol. to base cultural or biological
survival on the production and consumption of
the fetish , idol or symbol is insane. cultural
insanity? there always seems to be an insidious
demand for conformity afoot


blindman's picture

i never found anything there for me,
or no comment. to each his own ...?

willwork4food's picture

I'm guessing John 3:16 doesn't work with you..

blindman's picture

@.." 16"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. " ..
in the context of the crucifixion etc ..
you are correct, it does not work for me unless it
is radically interpreted, which may be the point?
i like this one ...gospel of thomas ..
(17) Jesus says:

"I will give you what no eye has seen, and what no ear has heard,
and what no hand has touched, and what has not occurred to the human mind."

new game's picture

not trying to top that. but trying to answer- intillectual honesty...

willwork4food's picture

I think this was a great essay, whether you are religious or not.

The Celebration of (New) Life through Christ or/and the solstice and the promise of a new world ahead through lights and gift giving sacrifice are a natural urge for joy.

You can make this materially detrimental , (ba humbug) or feel obligated, or just go with buying your favorite girl a hot cocoa and write a love letter to everyone else that might mean more to them than a cheap piece of plastic from China.

(No offense to China)

Trader Joe's picture

What a stupid fucking essay

 & Waste of time

Jesus Christ's picture

I'm with you on this one, TJ, but probably for different reasons.

JeffB's picture

Yes indeed, Happy Birthday!


GMadScientist's picture

Tell the truth: do you laugh at that "...can you put me up for the night?" joke?

SafelyGraze's picture

happy birthday!

admittedly a day late


LetThemEatRand's picture

Showing off acquired wealth in various forms including through gift-giving is indeed as old as humanity itself, but the current oligarch controlled media pushed event we call Christmas has become little more than an organized call to further debt slavery for most.  People feel compelled to buy gifts they cannot afford to a point of absurdity.   I believe that is the primary objection that most people feel when they complain Christmas has become too commercialized.

GMadScientist's picture

I see it as a generalized American fetishism; the need to externalize these things for all to see, like the money shot in a bad porno, which colors everything that they attempt to celebrate, because ostentatious display is easily had in the marketplace yet provides cover for their otherwise disingenuous spirit.

Sheeples love this time of year; they know exactly how to behave.

Bicycle Repairman's picture

"I believe that is the primary objection that most people feel when they complain Christmas has become too commercialized."

Perhaps the primary objection is that Christ gets crowded out by the secular mid-Winter gift-giving festival.

SafelyGraze's picture

when we offer our gifts during this blessed holiday season, let us not forget the greatest giver of them all

in the sense of philanthropic largesse

SafelyGraze's picture

need to find a photo of him giving a dime to a kid